Student “arcade” showcases video game designs and critical thinking

One day at recess, I watched two of my third-grade girls playing a video game called Animal Jam on a tiny cell phone screen. They worked together to make all kinds of decisions. Should we adopt this animal? How should we decorate our den? What are we supposed to do on this part? Their conversation blew me away and I thought, how can I get students to talk to each other like that in the classroom?

The answer was right in their hands: video games.

Adults often think of a video game as this mindless task that sucks away time when kids could be reading or practicing multiplication facts. But in today’s world, students like to play video games with each other. They like to watch YouTube videos of people playing the games. They research and plan and talk about games. And if you look closely, there are a lot of 21st-century skills at play.

So I asked students to create their own video game company and eventually show off a game they designed at a real Arcade in our classroom. They were the most excited I had seen them all year (and we had even gone on three field trips).


Students started out by picking a name and designing a company logo in Google Drawings. Then, we did some market research by surveying the class using a Google Form about what kinds of games students like to play.

Finally, it was time to start learning about design elements. I initially planned to use the free app called Bloxels that I had seen at a local CUE (Computer Using Educator) workshop. However, at the last minute, I found out that Bloxels only works on iPads and not Chromebooks. I frantically searched the Web and found an amazing, free program called Gamestar Mechanic. Not only does it work on Chromebooks, but it also takes students through a quest that teaches them the elements of game design before they are allowed to create their own game. Students worked through missions and earned components (avatars, enemies, blocks, and more) that they could put into their game once they graduated as a certified designer.

Gamestar has a lot of built in differentiation. Students can work at their own pace and even attempt bonus missions to earn advanced components like speech bubbles and portals. But there were times when I had doubts as a teacher. Was this healthy for my students to be working with video games every day for 30 minutes? Was this teaching them anything or were they just having fun? This mindset stems from a decade of increased pressure from standardized tests, and one that I have decided will not prepare my students to be college and career ready. This video game project was exactly what they needed.

Students naturally began collaborating. They coached each other when they got stuck. They asked each other to test their games to check the levels of difficulty and engagement, and then iterated on their designs. They loved having an audience to give them feedback and praise. And because there were so many different ways to make the games, all of them were unique and creative in their own way. But what really stood out was the problem-solving. Students were constantly in a mode of thinking and fixing and trying and failing. This is something we work so hard to develop in academics and students don’t even realize that they do it every day when playing video games.


On the final day of the project, I invited parents, teachers, and students to come play the games. About 75 people attended throughout the day. Each student’s company logo was printed in color and attached to their Chromebook. Guests were provided with a list of questions to ask the students. And students were given feedback forms to fill out after each tester played their game. Attendees remarked that the students were articulate, invested, and clearly understood the goal of the project.

According to Hanover Research, there are four critical areas of 21st-century skills:

  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Creativity and imagination
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem solving

It’s clear our video game design project hit all those areas. After the arcade, though, one of my students exclaimed, “Mrs. Cummings, today was the best day ever because we didn’t do any learning!” Her statement left me feeling sad, but I understood where she was coming from. Students, like myself, have had the same mentality regarding school drilled into them. The next day, we brainstormed a list of everything we learned from the project so that students could see they had actually learned a great deal (see the list below). In the future, I will ensure these goals are explicitly promoted right from the start. And I am determined to replicate this kind of experience in all academic areas so that students can see that learning is fun.

what we learned from the video game project

NOTE: This list was generated by my students

  • Independence (“My mom said she was surprised I did it by myself because I always need help with everything”)
  • Listen to constructive feedback (“Instead of saying ‘No, this is my game!'”)
  • To ask for feedback
  • Never give up
  • Public speaking with strangers
  • “Not be shy in front of people we don’t know”
  • Creativity
  • Liked adult feedback better than kids because they gave more feedback and asked better questions
  • The kids were shy so they gave you less feedback
  • Kids play games more than adults and have more experience
  • “We should listen to the people because they have good ideas.”
  • “You can get more money if you change the game to what people want.”
  • How to get feedback
  • “There are other strategies that people use in games.”
  • We can use our imagination and get creative
  • Never give up!
  • It’s like writing a story. In a story, you have to go through a lot of processes. Like in fiction stories there’s a problem and a solution.
  • Showing grit
  • It took a process to make the game
  • We took our time and made the game. Some things take a longer time to develop.
  • How to make a game
  • Learn from our mistakes
  • To go back and fix things


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